Meet Han Xiao. Han started playing table tennis when he was six, and he has been going strong ever since. Now 18 and a student at the University of Maryland, Han knows exactly where he wants to go with the sport – like to the 2008 Olympic games!
Han was born in China and moved to Washington, DC when he was two. He moved to Maryland when he was six and began to play after his parents saw an ad for private lessons in the local newspaper.
“My dad thought it would be fun and helped me get interested,” he says, “but after I got started, I’ve been pretty much self-motivated.” Years later, Han has won all kinds of table tennis titles and awards – including the 2002 US Men’s Doubles Championship and the 2002 USOC Men’s Athlete of the Year for table tennis.
But the titles don’t stop there! In fact, Han has won every age group at the Junior Olympics/Junior Nationals at least once and says that understanding and applying his coach’s advice during practice has really helped him excel.
Like many sports, table tennis requires a lot of strategy, and coaching helps players develop the types of skills they’ll need. “There’s so much strategy involved,” says Han, “you have to think and make decisions in under a second all the time – mostly, you want to keep the opponent guessing by constantly changing, or in some cases not changing, the timing, the pace and the placements of your shots.”
Han has trained at the Maryland Table Tennis Center ever since he began to play, taking private lessons with Cheng Yinghua. Cheng and Han make quite a team, and Han says his coach is partly why he’s been so successful.
Han practices with other players and friends in the area, but for the most part, he practices with Cheng. Cheng is not only his coach – he’s a former Chinese National Team member and has won many US Men’s Singles Championships of his own. The two make a great team on and off the tournament courts – they even paired up to win the National Doubles title in 2002.
“I won that title on my 16th birthday,” says Han. “That is extremely young for a doubles or any national title, but it was because the field was a little weaker than usual, and I was paired with my coach who has been at the top for quite a while.”
What Does It Take
It’s taken Han a lot of practice to get where he is today. Table tennis doesn’t have a season, like football in the fall, so he practices all year long. At most, he plays for an hour or two a day but also keeps himself in shape with other physical activities.
“I run about three miles in the morning when possible – I also lift weights and do plyometrics,” he says. Plyometrics are exercises that work muscles and help build speed and strength. Han also enjoys other sports like basketball and says that even though they may require different skills than table tennis, all sports “help with reflexes and general athleticism.”
Table tennis tournaments are held all over and sometimes require Han to visit other cities and states. “I play in about a tournament a month. Some of them involve travel – the Nationals are always in Las Vegas, for example.” In fact, Han even traveled to Shanghai, China in April to play in the World Championships! And just how does he get ready for all these tournaments? “I try to focus on getting rid of jitters by listening to music and clearing my mind.”
Looking Back and Moving Forward.
Wining the 2002 National Men’s Doubles Championship with coach Cheng Yinghua may be one of Han’s greatest memories. But this Kid Xpert has had his fifteen minutes of fame more than once!
“When I was eight or nine I did an interview on the evening news. At the time I was the Junior Olympic/National under ten boys champion. I was so overwhelmed, but the reporters were very nice people and made me really comfortable with the process. Seeing myself on TV was a great feeling!”
Han plans to keep playing table tennis while also pursuing his education. “School comes first,” he says, “practice comes in spare time. I want to try to make the Olympics in 2008, graduate, work a few years and then try to get an MBA.”
It will take a lot of preparation to make the Olympic team. “I have to get faster and stronger through lots of physical training like weights and running. I also have to practice hard on the table for a period of time before the Olympic Trials in 2008. It sounds simple, but the competition in Olympic years is always extremely fierce, so I’m not sure about my chances yet.”
Han will tell you that practice makes perfect. “Practice, practice, practice,” he says, “that’s all there is to it. Don’t get discouraged if people are better than you. Table tennis is complicated because of the speed and spin. Don’t be scared to ask questions and learn. Everyone has to start from somewhere.”
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